“Took on the whole seventh grade?”
Talk about an example of how stringent the ratings board has gotten in the past 30+ years. Who knew a PG film targeted for young children to see with their families could have so much swearing, alcohol, fighting, smoking, and examples of psychologically abusive parents? The Bad News Bears—the original 1976 version mind you—shows that we were once able to make smart movies with morals that didn’t have to pander to the lowest common denominator. Not only is the film actually good, it also recalls a time where children could be deemed responsible enough to watch a slice of real life and not be scarred as a result. Parents and legislators today are so quick to reference cinema, music, and videogames as the downfall of society rather than look at their own culture of censorship and sheltering of their kids from the big bad world out there. Why have to tell your kids something is bad while they see troublemakers on screen do it when you can just wipe it out completely from anything a thirteen year old can watch? We’ve become lazy and as a result so have the movies we deem appropriate for our kids to see.
I used to think that it was close to blasphemy how I had yet to see this film. Bordering on pure hatred of the sport of baseball from a young age could have been a factor, but it just never interested me or was available to watch as a kid. With that said, it’s not like I never saw the story being used. So many films have taken the formula used in The Bad News Bears and tweaked it to fit their needs. Sixteen years later saw the hockey equivalent arrive with The Mighty Ducks—now there was a sport I could get behind. Both utilize the down-on-his-luck ex-player that becomes coerced into coaching a team of ragtag misfits that have no business being on the field. They all know they stink and until said manager sees the sorrow and the overabundance of quit behind their watery eyes, they begin to turn on each other. All of a sudden pride kicks in and the coach hunkers down to teach the basics and get a decent team ready to try their best. A couple ringers are still needed to even the playing field and a few bumps are a pre-requisite on the road to that inevitable championship berth, but the true meaning to it all is the idea of second chances, doing all you can do without looking back, and making friends by not only winning as a time, but also losing as one.
Walter Matthau is brilliantly cast as the crotchety old drunk, dug up to turn this team around. The idea for The Bears to even be a team comes from an over-zealous father—something time has definitely not rid us of in little league sports—who doesn’t have enough time to play with his kid due to work so he sues a league to get an extra team included. All the ‘last picked’ unathletic eleven year olds are then combined to fill out the group, making Matthau’s Coach Buttermaker’s job even harder. But this old has-been who struck out Ted Williams in the minors has some savvy hidden up his sleeve, as well as some aces too. He knows the game and can teach the kids how to hit, throw, and block groundballs once he gains their respect. The tough, carefree attitude he harbors from a lifetime of bitterness also attracts a certain type of person to come calling—case and point are Tatum O’Neal’s Amanda Whurlitzer and Jackie Earle Haley’s Kelly Leak. Here are a couple bruisers that aren’t afraid to speak their mind or do whatever it is they want. Whurlitzer was on the fast track to being Buttermaker’s daughter-in-law, so she of course has a mean curveball and Leak is the juvenile delinquent doubling as the most athletic kid in town who’d rather cause mayhem on his Harley than apply his skills and prove it.
All the stereotypes are thrown into the mix, including the opposing head coach with Vic Morrow’s Roy Turner—that guy you love to hate. However, writer Bill Lancaster and director Michael Ritchie throw us their own curveball and do exactly what we aren’t expecting. Turner is a hothead who has decided to live vicariously through his boys and their success, no doubt, but he isn’t a complete villain. While a jerk and reveler in the demise of the weak, you do see that underneath it all he is still a father. He doesn’t want to see these kids get hurt; it’s just unfortunate that he is often the cause of their pain. Then there is Buttermaker using Leak’s strengths to single-handedly win a game while his teammates begin to resent the ball hogging and turn against their star. Instead of having Leak run off fed up, though, the filmmakers allow him to show the emotion and desire to feel wanted on a team for once in his life. There really is so much a kid could learn from this film and if that means sitting through a little rough housing to notice how Chris Barnes’ loose cannon Tanner sticks up for Michael Quinn Smith’s nose-picking Lupus or Haley’s Leak trying to pick up a high school aged ballet student or a ten year old mixing a martini for his coach, so be it.
It is the message that ultimately matters in a film aimed to educate kids on being better people. Sometimes the package may not be the most pristine vehicle you’d like it to be, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. What about killing two birds with one stone and getting your kid to watch a story with a theme while also giving him or her a taste of adult subject matter? The problem with swearing, sex, and violence is not that they are prevalent in the entertainment industry, it is that parents are so afraid their kid will become the next Tim McVeigh that they hide in the sand and lock it all away. We should be embracing the growth of today’s youth, having faith in them and letting them mature responsibly under a watchful eye. By viewing a film like The Bad News Bears with your middle schooler, not only are you letting him experience a good piece of cinema, but you are showing, by sitting at his side, that he is ready to be ushered into the bigger world out there. Entertainment media causes problems when children stumble upon it unencumbered and without an authority figure to walk them through. Next time you decide to call a teacher or write to your local politician for stricter laws, hopefully you won’t be remembering how you weren’t there and are just trying to pass the buck from embarrassment. Look around you, keeping your kid in a hermetically sealed bubble until it’s too late that you just have to throw him to the wolves is exactly what has caused the state of affairs our youth finds itself in today. Maybe a couple films like this could turn that around.
The Bad News Bears 7/10 | ★ ★ ★